GOP frosh take care of districts in defense bill

May 23, 2011 - 2:57 AM
Defense Bill Look Homeward

FILE - In this Nov. 15, 2010, file photo, Rep.-elect Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., talks with the media on Capitol Hill in Washington during Congressional freshmen orientation. Hard-charging Republicans who rallied voters last year with cries of stop the spending, ban the earmarks are quietly offering a more familiar Washington refrain now they’re in Congress - not in my back yard. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Hard-charging Republicans who rallied voters last year with cries of "Stop the spending, ban the earmarks" are quietly offering a more familiar Washington refrain now they're in Congress — not in my backyard.

The massive, $553 billion bill providing a budget for the Pentagon boasts millions of dollars that President Barack Obama didn't request for weapons programs, installations and other projects in districts from Illinois to Mississippi represented by House GOP freshmen. The additions look suspiciously like the pet projects that Republicans prohibited when they took over the House and that the new class of lawmakers, many with tea party backing, swore off in a promise to change Washington's spending habits.

Heated campaign talk of reining in spending and barring earmarks often cools once candidates get to Congress and face the needs and demands of their districts, especially in times of wobbly economic recovery and a widespread shortage of jobs.

The House is scheduled to vote on the bill this week. Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee insist the additions are not earmarks. The committee chairman, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., said firmly in March that he would not permit them, and each addition carries a disclaimer that says a decision to spend these budgetary requests must be based on competition or merit.

"At the end of the day, the Pentagon still has the power," said Josh Holly, a spokesman for the GOP-controlled committee. "The Pentagon looks at the bill and will do it on a competitive basis."

Proud statements that Republican freshmen churned out within hours of the committee's early morning vote this month suggest otherwise.

A provision added to Obama's budget request would provide another $2.5 million for weapons and munitions advanced technology, money for the Quad City Manufacturing Lab at the Rock Island Arsenal in freshman Rep. Bobby Schilling's Illinois district. The lab conducts research and development on titanium, lightweight composites and other advanced materials.

"Through this legislation, we were able to pave the way for more public-private partnerships at RIA that will increase the workload, keep skills sharp and promote jobs," Schilling, who was born and raised in Rock Island, said in a statement. "These policies will help protect our war fighters abroad and help us prosper economically at home. I am honored to have the opportunity to represent the hard-working men and women at the Rock Island Arsenal,"

During his 2010 campaign against Democratic Rep. Phil Hare, the tea party-backed, pizza-business owner Schilling ran as a fiscal conservative and railed against Hare's earmarking.

"Earmark reform that forces lawmakers to be more transparent is critical to weeding out corruption and waste," Schilling wrote in an op-ed last October. "Programs should only pass if they have merit and can stand on their own. If an earmark is a good project, it will pass. If it's for swamp mice in California, it won't."

Schilling advocated voting on each amendment separately, saying anything less would be irresponsible government.

In fact, the committee approved Schilling's provision as part of a package of 19 amendments with little or no debate and no separate vote during some 16 hours of deliberations.

Questioned about the provision, Schilling's press secretary, Andie Pivarunas, said the committee process "has been transparent, and the Army will decide where this budget funding goes on a competitive or merit-based basis."

Laura Peterson, national security analyst with Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the group was analyzing the defense bill to determine whether the committee made good on its promise to prohibit earmarks, but she did see "bells, whistles and worse" that were tacked on. Her organization defines an earmark as a provision that sets aside money for a specific program, project, location or activity that bypasses a merit-based or competitive process.

"Just because the process is more transparent doesn't mean the initiative behind every congressional add is completely selfless," Peterson said.

Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, said even if the additions are not earmarks based on the committee's definition, his group will be scrutinizing the bill and looking at what programs received increases in money.

Another tea party-backed lawmaker, freshman Rep. Vicky Hartzler of Missouri, won an additional $20 million for "mixed conventional load capability for Air Force bombers." Hartzler's district is home to Whiteman Air Force Base, keeper of the nation's B-2 bombers, and Fort Leonard Wood.

"I believe this increase in funding will ensure our air crews have the full capabilities necessary to protect this country," Hartzler said in a statement.

The congresswoman backed the House GOP moratorium on earmarks last November, but according to published reports in Missouri, she doesn't think the ban should apply to defense spending.

Freshman Rep. Steven Palazzo, who unseated longtime conservative Democrat Gene Taylor in Mississippi, told voters during the campaign he favored banning earmarks, saying it would "help restore the people's faith in their government."

After the committee approved the defense bill, Palazzo hailed the $189 million he secured, including $10 million to buy land for training facilities for the Army National Guard and $19.9 million for ship preliminary design and feasibility studies. Palazzo's district is home to Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula.

"I am glad to be able to help ensure the long-term viability of our shipbuilding industry and the thousands of craftsmen that build the ships," Palazzo said in a statement.

Questioned about the provisions, Palazzo's press secretary, Hunter Lipscomb, said the congressman did not request funds for any specific project, just to transfer funds to increase the programs. "'The way the authorized funding will be spent will be up to the various account managers," Lipscomb said.